Those who are impressed by wise-sounding quotes are also more likely to believe in conspiracy theories and the paranormal.
A new scientific study has found that those who are receptive to pseudo-profound, intellectual-sounding ‘bulls***’ are less intelligent, less reflective, and more likely to be believe in conspiracy theories, the paranormal and alternative medicine.
PhD candidate Gordon Pennycook and a team of researchers from the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, tested hundreds of participants to make the link, detailing their findings in a paper entitled ‘On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bulls***’, which mentions the word ‘bulls***’ exactly 200 times (surely some sort of record).
Defining bulls*** is a tricky task, but Pennycook and his team tried their best in the paper.
As an example, they gave the following ‘pseudo-profound’ statement: “Hidden meaning transforms unparalleled abstract beauty.”
The paper says: “Although this statement may seem to convey some sort of potentially profound meaning, it is merely a collection of buzzwords put together randomly in a sentence that retains syntactic structure.”
“Bulls***, in contrast to mere nonsense, is something that implies but does not contain adequate meaning or truth.”
Pennycook used a website that would randomly generate these pseudo-profound sentences from a string of words.
The website is still active, and serves up wise-sounding aphorisms like “This life is nothing short of an unveiling quantum leap of mythic rejuvenation” and “We are at a crossroads of transformation and desire” at the click of a button.
Almost 300 test subjects were asked to rate the profundity of these sentences on a scale of one to five.
The mean profoundness rating was 2.6, indicating the quotes were generally seen as between ‘somewhat profound’ and ‘fairly profound’. Around 27 per cent of participants gave an average score of three or more, gowever, suggesting they thought the sentences were profound or very profound.
In the second test, the team confronted the participants with real-life examples of bulls***, asking them to read tweets posted by Deepak Chopra, a writer known for his New Age views on spirituality and medicine, as well as using the computer-generated statements from the first test.
The results in this test were very similar, indicating many participants were unable to spot the bulls***.
In the final two tests, participants read mundane statements, like “newborn babies require constant attention” and well-known, ‘truly’ profound quotes like “a wet person does not fear the rain” as controls, just to check that participants weren’t labelling everything as profound.
As expected, most participants labelled the mundane statements as ‘not profound’, and tended to rate the well-known profound statements highly.
Alongside these tests, the researchers looked into a number of other personality traits, examining how the participants think about themselves and the world around them.
In a fairly damning passage from the paper, it says that those who were more receptive to the bulls*** statements and who tended to rate them higher were “less reflective, lower in cognitive ability(i.e verbal and fluid intelligence, numeracy,) and are more prone to ontological confusions and conspiratorial ideation.”
It also said they were more likely to “hold religious and paranormal beliefs, and are more likely to endorse complementary and alternative medicine.”
As they say, “our findings are consistent with the idea that the tendency to rate vague, meaningless statements as profound is a legitimate psychological phenomenon that is consistently related to at least some variables of theoretical interest.”
Through the rise of instant communication and the internet, people are exposed to this kind of ‘pseudo-profound bulls***’ now more than ever.
It’s fun to read a real scientific paper than says ‘bulls***’ 200 times, but it’s also important to be more aware and able to detect wise-sounding nonsense when we hear it – it could stop us from falling into the trap of irrational thinking.